Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mass disability and Great Depression 2.0

Wired magazine's front page claimed recently that "free" was the new cheap. That would be consistent with Robert Reich's latest "Great Depression" post (aka, GD 2.0. Emphases mine):

Robert Reich's Blog: Are We Heading Toward Depression (Part 3)?

American consumers are coming to the end of their ropes and don't have the buying power they need to absorb the goods and services the U.S. economy is capable of producing. This is likely to mean fewer jobs, which will force Americans to pull in their belts even tighter, leading to still fewer jobs – the classic recipe for recession. That recession may turn into a full-fledged Depression if fiscal and monetary policies can't make up for consumers' lack of buying power. And there's reason to worry they cannot because consumers are in a permanent bind. They're deep in debt, their homes are losing value, and their paychecks are shrinking...

...We're reaping the whirlwind of many years during which Americans have spent beyond their means and most of the benefits of an expanding economy have gone to a relatively small group at the very top. Adjusted for inflation, the median wage is below where it was in 1999. The nation's median hourly wage is barely higher than it was thirty-five years ago. The income of a man in his 30s is now 12 percent below that of a man his age three decades ago. The rich, meanwhile, can't keep the economy going on their own because they devote a smaller percentage of their earnings to buying things than the rest of us: After all, they're rich, and they already have most of what they want. Instead of buying, they're more likely to invest their earnings wherever around the world they can get the highest return...

... Go back to the years just before the Great Depression and you see the same pattern. As I've noted before, Marriner S. Eccles, who served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1934 to 1948, noted this in his memoir "Beckoning Frontiers":

"As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth -- not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced -- to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation's economic machinery. Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants. In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped."...

There's so much opportunity for productivity driven growth in China, India, and even Africa that we ought to be able to dodge a GD 2.0, or even a Japanese-style 1990s depression. Of course if we really are entering Peak Oil territory, this is not a great time to have a markedly sub-optimal spending capacity distribution across America.

My take? I believe that about 20% of adult Americans aged 25 to 65 are effectively disabled in our current globalized post-industrial economy. I believe this number will rise as our population ages. I believe this is the fundamental problem, along with network effects, driving modern wealth concentration.

Over time the economy will change to develop niches for unused capacity (servant economy?), but the transition need not be comfortable. In the meantime technological shocks, such as ubiquitous robotics, may induce new disruptions to a non-equilibrium economic structure -- risking extensive economic breakdown.

Even if we avoid GD 2.0 this time around, we need to rethink our economics and social models.

Update 4/4/2010: Changed the title of this post - the original was kind of meaningless.

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